Town-Water District Agreement Marks Major Shift In Mashpee Sewer Planning

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By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 04/21/11

The landscape of the town sewer project took on a new and drastically different shape this week, as the Mashpee Board of Selectmen and the Mashpee Water District Board of Commissioners voted in a joint meeting to shift responsibility for the multi-million dollar sewer plan to the water district.

The decision came swiftly after years of debate about the merits and detriments of such a transfer, following a vote by the Mashpee Sewer Commission less than a month ago that served as the catalyst to Wednesday evening’s votes.

The unanimous agreement, which came after the meeting of more than 20 water district and town officials, including attorneys, the sewer commission, and the Mashpee Finance Committee, sets the stage for more detailed negotiations to determine how the transfer will take place.

The expected outcome, however, is that the organization now known as the Mashpee Water District will become a newly empowered Mashpee water and sewer district.

The shift will require adding new authority under the water district’s enabling legislation, as well as changes to the town charter and at least one town bylaw, to allow the water district to take on wastewater projects and allow the town to drop the sewer commission.

Attorneys for the town and the water district said the process, which will entail action by the state Legislature as well as at least two votes by residents, could take place over the next year. The first step in the process will be a memorandum of understanding between the selectmen and the water district board, a legal document that will lay the transfer out in more detail.

As an independent municipal organization, the water district is different than town departments. The district holds its own annual district meeting instead of Town Meeting and has its own elections to chose district commissioners. The district is not under the jurisdiction of selectmen or the town manager.

The sewer commission has for the last decade been the lead agency in charge of the town’s plan to reduce the nitrogen pollution destroying the environment of the town’s bays and salt ponds. The commission is well on its way toward developing a plan, expected to cost several hundred million dollars, to install advanced wastewater treatment facilities throughout town that would replace the individual septic systems now used by most residences.

As the transfer takes shape and is considered by voters, the sewer commission will continue working on the plan, Town Counsel Patrick J. Costello said, though the commission should avoid making any decisions that are not strictly necessary to move the process forward or that may be opposed by the water district. The change will likely involve the water district assuming responsibility and ownership of town assets and debts related to the sewer project, he said.

Water district counsel William C. Henchy said the action is better described as a transfer of authority than a merger between the water district and the sewer commission.

The vote was ushered along by water district Chairman Kenneth E. Marsters and Theresa M. Cook, chairman of the board of selectmen.

Mr. Marsters from the outset of the meeting framed the discussion on Wednesday as a question of how, not whether, the water district would take over the project.

“This is something we have discussed since 2006 at least,” Mr. Marsters said in opening remarks. “I think we all agree that there are economies of scale here...I think we all agree that this makes sense.”

Ms. Cook echoed his remarks, saying, “This is something all of us have toyed with over the years...It was just a question of how are we going to do it?”

Mr. Marsters and Ms. Cook largely avoided detailed discussions of the merits of the transfer, though Mr. Marsters’s two colleagues on the water district board both expressed reservations in interviews after the meeting.

Water Commissioner Ronald Gangemi said he was doubtful the transfer would save much money, given that the water district staff and equipment is already busy and in use for water services. “We will still have to spend the money [to buy new equipment],” he said.

He said he is concerned about the $500 million price tag of the project, and whether the sewer commission will be taking the project in the same direction as the water district before the transfer actually takes place. “Like going the regional approach. I have always said that going regional will save millions of dollars,” Mr. Gangemi said.

Commissioner Perry F. Ellis, in an interview after the meeting, said he is wary of the change given the sometimes contentious history between the town and the district, a relationship that was stressed just three years ago when a Town Meeting article proposed to combine the district’s annual election with the town’s. After months of disagreement, that issue was resolved when the district agreed to petition the state on its own for special legislation to hold the two elections simultaneously.

He said the water district will need to have control over the project and the budget. “The sewer commission should serve in an advisory capacity, period,” he said.

Mr. Marsters, however, said the expertise of the sewer commission will be needed as the project moves forward. “[The sewer commissioners] aren’t going anywhere. They are here to stay. We need them,” he said.

Both Mr. Gangemi and Mr. Ellis said they are concerned with the project’s cost and whether the town can afford it.
Sewer commissioner Ralph J. Marcelli also questioned the wisdom of the proposal.

Mr. Marcelli, the lone vote on the sewer commission against the transfer and the lone official to speak out clearly against it at the meeting Wednesday, said that given water district’s exemption from Proposition 2 1/2, the state law limiting annual tax increases, shifting the project to its authority is “dangerous.” He said he is afraid of how the project will affect tax rates of residents, especially those least able to afford tax increases.

“We are talking about something that is between $500 and $700 million here. We are talking about a half a billion dollars,” he said. “As far as proportion of income, the poor will be hurt the most.”

Mr. Costello, however, said that infrastructure projects like this “almost never” go through property taxes, the town’s primary source of revenue. Given the size of the project, Mashpee would simply not be able to pay for it within the limits of Proposition 2 1/2, he said. The town would need to use some “creative financing,” like establishing a separate, self-sustaining fund within the town in order to afford the large upfront cost of the infrastructure.

Sewer commission Chairman F. Thomas Fudala said, “The bottom line is this is a very expensive project, whichever entity does it.” The idea behind shifting it to the water district is to make it as least expensive as possible, he said, by taking advantage of efficiencies within the water district.

He said the decision comes down to trusting the water district not to “go crazy” on a spending spree, which he said has not happened in the last two-plus decades as the district has built out the town’s potable water infrastructure.
Mr. Marcelli and Mr. Gangemi both questioned how much the transfer would actually save, given that the water district is already busy with its current service.

Mr. Fudala pointed to a cost analysis he developed during his time as a water commissioner, in which he found that, based on Fiscal Year 2010 numbers, having the district take over the project would save between $500,000 and $800,000 a year, depending on whether the town would pursue the project or a separate sewer district were to be created.

“The District’s existing financing and bill capabilities, utility-oriented customer service structure, and its excellent management and office personnel all make it an extremely logical choice to undertake the development and management of a sewer utility, vs. an entirely new and duplicative Town operation or another separate district,” Mr. Fudala wrote.

In response to other concerns expressed by Mr. Marcelli, Ms. Cook noted that although attendance at water district meetings and elections is low now, when the district was expanding and big money items were under consideration, the district was the subject of as much public attention as the town itself.

Ms. Cook said the transfer will be on the board of selectmen’s agenda at its meeting Monday evening, at 6:30 PM at town hall.

The sewer commission meets on Tuesday evening, at 7 PM at town hall, and is scheduled to discuss the transfer as well.

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